"It was the era that ushered in new ways of thinking. Yet most women weren't expected to have a voice in the debate. Here are some who made themselves heard." notes Patricia Fara.
It was a time of explosive new ideas – political revolution, contemplation of the rights of individuals, the rise of scientific enquiry and a broader appreciation for the power of reason. Yet while the names most remembered from the Enlightenment era – Locke, Newton, Voltaire, Kant, Paine – belong to men, there were many women who participated in and influenced the intellectual upheaval of the time, sometimes in subtle ways, by using the only tools at their disposal.
Emilie du Châtelet was one such pioneering woman. She made use of her aristocratic background and connections with the upper echelons of society to involve herself in the philosophical debates of her day – and she used her sharp wit and mathematical aptitude to test the newest ideas in physics and convince her compatriots that Newton’s theory of gravity was right.
Yet du Châtelet was not alone. Meet other daring women of the Enlightenment:
Marie Paulze Lavoisier (1758-1836)
Women can be their own worst enemies. “I am nothing, I have done nothing,” lamented the astronomer Caroline Herschel. This self-abnegation has helped push her into the backwaters of history, yet she was the first woman to discover a comet, and was so well-recognised at the time that King George III rewarded her with a scientific salary.
Even her own mother hampered her career, insisting that she stay at home to wash and clean. Eventually Herschel escaped from family servitude in her native Hanover to join her brother William in England, best known for discovering Uranus. He soon enlisted her to collaborate on his astronomical projects.
Night after night, they recorded telescope observations together, even when it was so cold that the ink froze and the metal mirror cracked. She performed the calculations needed to convert numbers on a dial into locations on a map, and it was thanks to her that Britain’s major star catalogue was brought up to date. Independent of her brother, she identified several new comets and at last allowed herself a rare moment of pique at male oppression. Admitting to the Astronomer Royal that his interest had stimulated her “vanity”, she pointed out that “among gentlemen the commodity is generally styled ambition”.
Mary Somerville (1780-1872)
Not many female scientists have a ship named after them, but for 20 years the Mary Somerville carried goods between Liverpool, Canton and Calcutta. Its figurehead was copied from the commemorative marble bust that the Fellows of the Royal Society had commissioned for their foyer. Yet although she was celebrated as “the Queen of the Sciences”, the real-life Somerville was not allowed to set foot inside the Society’s hallowed halls: when her article on magnetism and sunlight was published in the Philosophical Transactions, her husband read it out on her behalf.
The first time the word “scientist” appeared in print was in a review of Somerville’s bestseller, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, which consolidated as well as disseminated the latest cutting-edge research. Though excluded from universities, scholarly societies and laboratories, she became Victorian England’s most famous scientific author. The modern edition of her work runs to nine volumes – a massive output that she somehow managed to write while looking after her family. She resented the social pressures preventing women from achieving their full potential. “A man can always command his time under the plea of business,” she observed, but “a woman is not allowed any such excuse”.
7 women of science who deserve greater recognition
Source: New Scientist and New Scientist Channel (YouTube)